By A. Vinod Kumar
“Someone doesn’t have to weaponise the bird flu. The birds are doing that,” says Ellis Cheever of Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the 2011 movie, Contagion, when asked by the United States Homeland Security whether someone had weaponised the flu instead of deploying explosives to ‘launch an attack’ at a crowded marketplace. As prophetic the movie turned out to be, the scene visualised the peculiar nature and manifestations of this threat: an invisible organism that is hatched in nature, but, incidentally, can also be appropriated by humans for destructive ends.
The spectre of a microbial pathogen ploughing through every habitable land on Earth infecting close to four million and killing more than two and a half lakh can spawn disbelief on the kind of mass disruption and deaths a single-source microbe can unleash.1 With little resistance put up by a humbled human race and no reliable cure in sight,2 the question whether the SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus-2) was nature’s retort to encroaching mankind or it was a man-made assault on humanity continues to hang as a mystery.
While most reports pointed to Wuhan’s wet markets and its wild livestock as source of a zoonotic (animal-to-human) transmission, a parallel narrative of the virus having originated in or spilling out of a laboratory, intentionally or by accident, has again gained traction. With global opinion being mobilised against China to make it accountable for the virus outbreak, the resultant geopolitical firestorm does not appear to be a mere fleeting affair. Rather, the omnipotent imprint of the pandemic is likely to generate new interest on the exploitation of biological agents for political ends which, in turn, could necessitate greater normative impulses to mitigate the consequent dangers.
Even before US President Donald Trump described the CoV-2 as the ‘China Virus’, sections of the American media had run stories on the presence of a virology institute in Wuhan and insinuating the lab’s linkage with the outbreak. Subsequently, they picked up murmurs in sections of the Mandarin press (and social media), based outside the mainland, on the possibilities of the virus having leaked from a Wuhan lab, where it was claimed that the security was enhanced after the outbreak.3 That Wuhan has China’s only BSL-4 (Bio-Safety Level-4 being the highest grade) lab4 – the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) with its National Biosafety Laboratory reportedly being Asia’s only repository of the SARS-CoV and Ebola specimens – was good enough to buttress these theories.5 Pacing up the spotlight on WIV was a leaked report quoting earlier US Embassy cables from Beijing highlighting lax security at the Wuhan lab.6
Among the surmises include claims that the virus, going by its aggressively virulent nature, could have been engineered in Wuhan lab as a bio-weapon (or with ulterior commercial motives including a vaccination project), or that an experimental sample could have ejected out by accident through an infected employee or an animal specimen. In fact, despite initial reports that the first human transmission could have occurred at the Wuhan market, subsequent conjectures veered around various theories including that the patient zero was a WIV researcher and that animal specimens used for experiments were sold out to the local wet market.
The Chinese attitude too has been unhelpful: concealing information on the virus origins and deaths, and restricting research on these matters on the one hand, and indulging in aggressive diplomatic battles on the other. Having countered the initial negativity by casting aspersions on the US military as having planted the virus during a joint-exercise and pointing to corona traces in influenza already prevalent in the US, the Chinese officialdom was belligerent towards countries that sought international investigation on the outbreak and Chinese complicity in it.7 While Trump putting the spotlight on China might be to cover up his lax domestic management of the COVID-19 spread, the call for international investigations, the World Health Organisation’s credibility deficit apart, is necessitated by global concerns on the lack of transparency regarding the initial Wuhan imprints and wildlife trade in virus-prone wet markets despite they being causal for many outbreaks.8
Hatched in Nature or Lab?
Notwithstanding the many inferences made about the Wuhan origin of the CoV-2, the global health science community has, by and large, been unanimous in dismissing the possibility of the CoV-2 being a lab-engineered pathogen. The authoritative medical journal, Lancet, published a joint statement expressing solidarity with the Chinese scientists and “condemning all ‘conspiracy theories’ that suggest COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”9 The scientific consensus against a lab-origin of the virus is based on results of a handful of genome-sequencing of the COVID samples undertaken by various collaborative ventures. The foremost among them has been a multinational study which concluded that the backbone of the SARS-CoV-2 was not based on the previous seven CoV versions,10 thus rejecting the possibility of a lab output. The study concludes:
While the analyses suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may bind human ACE2 with high affinity, computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding. Thus, the high-affinity binding …is most likely the result of natural selection on a human…This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation…improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation…the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.11
While this study infers that the natural selection happened in an animal host through zoonotic transfer, other studies also echo the contention that the CoV-2 has its origin in a natural host (bats) before their zoonotic transfer, possibly through an animal intermediary.12 Another study postulates that the “RNA sequences closely resemble those of viruses that silently circulate in bats, and… implicates a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets.” These assessments validate the prevalent thinking about intermediaries being the transfer host for the CoV-2, like (civet) cats being transfer hosts in the 2002 SARS outbreak, though the transmitter in the latest outbreak is yet to be established notwithstanding numerous references about pangolins being a possible one.13
A Bio-Conflict in Making
Notwithstanding the global calls for investigation into the coronavirus origin and occasional banter on the lab linkages, ongoing assessments including by the US intelligence community has ruled out the possibility of the virus being a lab-developed bio-weapon. However, China’s actions continue to be suspect, particularly its intellectual espionage14 and the surreptitious inroads it had made into Western research ventures.15 Irrespective of where the truth lies, many feel that the contagion was the closest manifestation of a bio-weapon being unleashed on a global scale. The UN chief, Antonio Guterres, for instance, had described the pandemic as providing “a window onto how a bioterrorist attack might unfold.”16 Though alluding only to threats from non-state actors “gaining access to virulent strains,” between the lines are clear pointers on the likely intentions and capabilities of states in this domain.
In fact, how CoV-2 has brought nations to a calamitous halt – impeding all ways of lives and impairing public health systems world over – propels the need to contemplate the potential implications if states decide to ‘weaponise’ biological organisms as a means to covertly wreak havoc on competitor economies and societies. That such organisms can be developed on frugal budgets in state-owned labs and deployed stealthily, makes them an attractive option when asymmetry and subversions are sought against rivals. Quite similar to the cyber domain turning into a proxy conflict zone, the use of biological means to trigger large-scale disruptions and deaths in rival nations is an eventuality that has potent strategic imminence. Furthermore, the cut-throat race to monopolise vaccine pathways also aggravates the risks inherent in many of the state-supported research and development forays that evade public scrutiny.
Though the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has established norms against the weaponisation of biological agents, the Convention innately provides the loopholes for misuse and diversion by enabling the scope for their prophylactic and peaceful applications.17 Furthermore, the failure of state-parties to finalise a credible verification mechanism and a weak oversight framework,18 dependent on the declaration by states, is a significant reminder that the shield against the weaponisation of biological weapons remains fragile and vulnerable to the contingencies of the international system, particularly the great power politics.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
*About the author: A. Vinod Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
Source: This article was published by MP-IDSA
- 1.Viruses are not considered a living organism as they do not meet the general definition of life: they do not respond to changes in the environment, cannot reproduce on own and do so by infecting a host cell. Nonetheless, there is a greater description now of viruses being microorganisms or microbes. For a debate, see “What are microorganisms?”, Centre for Geobiology, University of Bergen, January 11, 2010.
- 2.The quest for a cure to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) is an ongoing endeavour. While at least three dozen ventures are running in different parts of the world to develop a vaccine against the SARS-Cov-2 virus, the more critical mission is the pursuit of a suitable treatment for the COVID infected patients.Various existing anti-virals like Lopinavir/ritonavir – generic drugs used for HIV/AIDS, SARS and MERS treatment – were used in combinations on COVID-19 patients. While nodal public health bodies in the US, India and other countries have approved the use of these drugs, the efficacy of such combo-treatments is seen as marginal. See Jienchi Dorward and Kome Gbinigie, “Lopinavir/ritonavir: A rapid review of effectiveness in COVID-19”, The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, University of Oxford, April 14, 2020. Hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, was widely sought after for a brief period with the US President Donald Trump staunchly backing the drug for COVID-19 treatment. Many sections in the global health community, however, cast aspersions on it as a proven remedy. Nonetheless, the drug is extensively being administered as a precautionary dose for health workers in many affected sectors. See Joshua Geleris, et.al., “Observational Study of Hydroxychloroquine in Hospitalized Patients with Covid-19”, The New England Journal of Medicine, May 07, 2020.The anti-viral drug that has now found greater acceptance is Remdesivir, developed by Gilead Sciences. Described as a broad-spectrum drug, Remdesivir has been developed to treat various respiratory viruses and was tested earlier on Ebola, SARS and MERS patients. While researchers are not yet conclusive about its efficacy for the COVID-19 treatment, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved its use based on Gilead’s claim of improved recovery time seen in its patient trials. As part of the WHO solidarity trials, India also received over 1000 doses of the drug for testing in COVID-19 patients. For a scientific assessment, See Yeming Wang, et.al., “Redmesivir in adults with severe COVID:19: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicentre trial”, The Lancet, April 29, 2020.
- 3.One of the mentioned indications was a directive from the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology titled: “Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus.” See Stephen W. Mosher, “Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab”, New York Post, February 22, 2020.
- 4.It is worthwhile to note that the US has six BSL-4 labs and seven more under construction while India has three including the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases at Bhopal.
- 5.Matching its BSL-4 grading, the WIV is considered as having an exemplary record on animal-origin pathogens with its researchers credited with breakthrough work in tracing coronavirus legacies to horse-shoe bats. For a detailed report, see Jane Qiu, “How China’s ‘Bat Woman’ Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus”, Scientific American, April 27, 2020.
- 6.Josh Rogin, “State Department Cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses”, The Washington Post, April 14, 2020.
- 7.While Zhao Lijian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, quoted a CDC testimony and a Canadian study (since removed) for his claims of March 12, Hua Chunying, another spokeswoman, responded on May 06 to Mike Pompeo’s statement of the virus originating in a Chinese laboratory by claiming that the US had shut down research last August at its military germ lab at Fort Detrick over biosecurity issues. Instances of diplomatic aggression include warning Australia of an economic backlash, Chinese envoy in Paris making snide comments about France’s response to COVID-19, among others.
- 8.On May 09, 2020, China issued a detailed dossier titled “Reality Check of US Allegations Against China on COVID-19” with a pointed rebuttal of American allegations.
- 9.Charles Calisher, “Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combating COVID-19”, The Lancet, 397 (10226), March 07, 2020.
- 10.Among the seven versions, the SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 are supposed to cause severe illnesses while the other versions, namely, HKU1, NL63, OC43 and 229E, display milder symptoms. See Kristian G. Andersen, et.al., “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”, Nature Medicine, No. 26, March 17, 2020.
- 12.The WIV team had in their SARS-origin quest found out that the bat-borne coronavirus comes with incredible genetic diversity, and that the pathogen presence in them was ephemeral and seasonal. They had concluded that the spike proteins of the new coronavirus are so effective in targeting specific receptors on human cells that it is hard to imagine humans manufacturing them, and that this feature could have evolved naturally. See no.5.
- 13.David M. Morens, et.al., “Escaping Pandora’s Box – Another Novel Coronavirus”, The New England Journal of Medicine, No. 382, April 02, 2020.
- 14.Andrew Rettman, “China suspected of bio-espionage in ‘heart of EU’”, EU Observer, May 06, 2020.
- 15.Days after the virus outbreak, the US investigators arrested a Harvard University professor and two Chinese nationals who were linked to China’s Thousand Talents Programme. See “Harvard University Professor and Two Chinese Nationals Charged in Three Separate China Related Cases”, US Department of Justice, January 28, 2020.
- 16.“COVID-19 threatening global peace and security, UN chief warns”, UN News, April 10, 2020.
- 17.“Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction”, United Nations Office on Disarmament Affairs.
- 18.The BWC does not have an international verification regime or its own international organisation to facilitate its effective implementation. Activities pertaining to BWC are managed by an Implementation Support Unit functioning at the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, with just seven staffers in its roll.